CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mecklenburg County s child welfare division became so dysfunctional that consultants recommended bringing in outside monitors, a rare move that reflects widespread failures.

The 2011 consultants study, which has never been made public, sheds new light on internal tensions at the Department of Social Services leading up to last month s firing of former Director Mary Wilson.

Wilson is appealing her termination in hearings that start Wednesday.

The study s often blunt assessments found that child welfare division head Paul Risk lacked assertive and decisive leadership and should be removed from the job.

Wilson oversaw that division and the report said distrust between her and Risk created an environment of divisiveness and confusion. Documents show she wanted to reassign Risk as far back as 2009.

More than a year after the report was issued at a taxpayer cost up to $75,000, the county has not fully implemented the consultants major recommendations. None of the Mecklenburg commissioners contacted Tuesday by the Observer said they had seen the report.

Documents obtained by and the Observer do not say who requested the report, but County General Manager Michelle Lancaster oversees DSS and was Wilson s direct supervisor.

Lancaster and Risk did not return phone calls seeking comment. County officials also did not respond to questions by email.

Commissioner Jim Pendergraph said he was unaware of the report and said county officials should have disclosed it. He called the findings disturbing.

Reversal of fortune

Starting Wednesday, a three-person employee panel begins determining whether Lancaster followed county policy when she recommended Wilson s termination.

In considering her appeal, the panel will hear evidence from both sides and make a recommendation, but County Manager Harry Jones will have the final say.

The county has not said why Wilson was terminated in September.

In a letter to county commissioners last month, Wilson said her termination was unfair, unjust and smacks of intimidation aimed at me and my staff.

The termination hearing represents a remarkable reversal for Wilson.

Commissioners unanimously voted to hire her in 2008 to reshape the troubled agency. An attorney who previously worked in the corporate world, she embraced the role of change agent.

Initially, her approach received the backing of Jones. But in February, Wilson wrote a memo that Mecklenburg County had struggled to meet federal standards for child protection. Her memo included a copy of a state review from 2011 that found nearly two dozen areas of deficiencies in child welfare.

About one month later, Risk began reporting directly to Lancaster instead of Wilson.

In their only extensive comments since Wilson s memo became public earlier this month, Lancaster and Risk defended the county and suggested reforms Wilson implemented eroded child protective services.

Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children s Rights, a child advocacy group, was among more than 30 people interviewed for the consultants report.

Dysfunction within DSS has left children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, Loftis said.

Everything that impacts the culture of an organization impacts the clients of that organization, Loftis said.

Report s findings

The 2011 report was commissioned at a time when DSS, after making significant progress in meeting federal standards for protecting children, had seen that progress eroded. It was conducted by Chuck Harris and Jo Ann Lamm, both former officials with the N.C. Division of Social Services.

The report found that in the Youth and Family Services division, 72 percent of supervisors and 97 percent of social workers said they did not believe that their leaders/managers always or even sometimes worked together as a team.

After extensive interviews with YFS staff, external community partners, and others with knowledge of the agency s situation, the consultants concluded that an exceedingly poor working relationship existed between Wilson and Risk.

This level of mistrust contributes to an environment of divisiveness and confusion within YFS and the broader child welfare community, the consultants wrote. ...There is strong consensus within YFS and the broader child welfare community that YFS cannot be successful under the current leadership, working the way they currently work.

The consultants recommended divorce.

They said the county should accelerate its plan to consolidate child-serving departments by re-establishing Youth and Family Services as a stand-alone agency, independent of DSS. Wilson would be stripped of all responsibility for the division.

The consultants also suggested that Risk be removed as YFS director and reassigned as the division s assistant director for planning and evaluation.

While his child welfare expertise cannot be challenged, his skill set is not best suited for the YFS Director position going forward, they wrote.

The consultants said Jones, the county manager, should immediately begin a national search for a permanent YFS Director, who would report to Lancaster, Wilson s supervisor at the time.

The consultants also suggested that the Youth and Family Services division accept voluntary oversight by an external team. The oversight team would be kept in place for a year and would have the authority to review and approve all goals and priorities, plans, evaluations of progress, systemic and organizational changes.

Other recommendations were designed to undo staffing changes that had been implemented under Wilson. Under her tenure, the consultants said, the number of mental health specialists employed by Youth and Family Services had gone from 20 to one. The consultants said the county should find ways to reverse those changes.

The report also said there were multiple examples of Wilson becoming personally involved in directing case decisions that did not take into account nationally and well recognized child welfare best practices.

But the report found the loss of a culture of accountability came prior to Wilson s arrival.

Wilson s concerns

While acknowledging accomplishments under Wilson s tenure fewer children in foster care and fewer incidents of repeat maltreatment, for example the report also said the former DSS director appears to accept little ownership and personal responsibility for the problems within YFS, even though her position carries with it the most responsibility for making sure that YFS does its work well.

But emails and memos show Wilson began to voice concerns about the management of Youth and Family Services soon after she arrived in the summer of 2008.

In an email to Lancaster dated March 18, 2009, Wilson proposed a reorganization plan for Youth and Family Services that would have moved Risk, the division s director, to a new position called special assistant to the director for child welfare.

I have found Paul to be an indecisive leader and because of the number of things that continue to bubble up in his division, I have lost confidence in his ability to lead, she wrote in the email.

Wilson listed several incidents involving Risk that she characterized as examples of poor leadership. In one incident, she said, a Youth and Family Services employee who had taken medical leave was incorrectly fired.

I was very surprised that Paul was not even aware that a staff member had been terminated, she wrote.

In that same email, Wilson also wrote that under Risk s leadership, 75 percent of the vouchers used by social workers, ostensibly to buy clothing and other items needed by children entering the foster care system, were returned without receipts.

Wilson wrote that Risk may have been overwhelmed with the size of the division and the many moving parts and unable to effectively manage it.

Beyond frustrating

On Tuesday, commissioner Bill James called the findings from the consultant s report startling and troubling.

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners is ultimately responsible for DSS oversight as a human services board. County Manager Jones oversees personnel at DSS.

But James said he could not remember receiving the document and sent county officials an email asking for a copy of the report.

It really makes you wonder how many studies are out there that the public and commissioners don t know about, James said. It is beyond frustrating.

Commissioner Karen Bentley said she does not recall receiving the report from county management. County staff should have alerted commissioners because she said the findings are significant.

We need to hear about this from staff and not the press.

In an email, board Chairman Harold Cogdell said he was aware the county hired consultants to examine Youth and Family Services.

Cogdell said he has requested a copy, but has not seen the report. He said the report is related to ongoing personnel matters and are not subject to legal disclosure.

Recent media reports about problems at DSS have raised legitimate questions and commissioners will look into the issues, Cogdell said.

This process will immediately be undertaken as soon as legally permissible, he wrote. The County Manager is accountable for management performance in all areas of county government and I am confident the BOCC will take whatever remedial measures are necessary to ensure accountability and transparency in county government.

Commissioners should take some blame, Loftis said. Despite their oversight role, they usually pay attention to child welfare issues after the media highlights problems, he said.

They don t see it as their responsibility, Loftis said. There s a lack of outrage both for the public and the commissioners. Who thinks this is OK?

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